When I broached the subject with my father, when I worked up the nerve to speak to him about my Crazy Idea, I made sure it was in the early evening. That was always the best time with Dad. He was relaxed then, well fed, stretched out in his vinyl recliner in the TV nook. I can still tilt back my head and close my eyes and hear the sound of the audience laughing, the tinny theme songs of his favorite shows, Wagon Train and Rawhide.
His all-time favorite was The Red Buttons Show from the 1950s. Every episode began with Red singing: Ho ho, hee hee . . . strange things are happening.
I set a straight-backed chair beside him and gave a wan smile and waited for the next commercial. I’d rehearsed my spiel, in my head, over and over, especially the opening. Sooo, Dad, you remember that Crazy Idea I had at Stanford . . . ?
It was one of my final classes, a seminar on entrepreneurship. I’d written a research paper about shoes, and the paper had evolved from a run-of-the-mill assignment to an all-out obsession. Being a runner, I knew something about running shoes. Being a business buff, I knew that Japanese cameras had made deep cuts into the camera market, which had once been dominated by Germans. Thus, I argued in my paper that Japanese running shoes might do the same thing. The idea interested me, then inspired me, then captivated me. It seemed so obvious, so simple, so potentially huge.
I’d spent weeks and weeks on that paper. I’d moved into the library, devoured everything I could find about importing and exporting, about starting a company. Finally, as required, I’d given a formal presentation of the paper to my classmates, who reacted with formal boredom. Not one asked a single question. They greeted my passion and intensity with labored sighs and vacant stares.
The professor thought my Crazy Idea had merit: He gave me an A. But that was that. At least, that was supposed to be that. I’d never really stopped thinking about that paper. Through the rest of my time at Stanford, through every morning run and right up to that moment in the TV nook, I’d pondered going to Japan, finding a shoe company, pitching them my Crazy Idea, in the hopes that they’d have a more enthusiastic reaction than my classmates, that they’d want to partner with a shy, pale, rail-thin kid from sleepy Oregon.
I’d also toyed with the notion of making an exotic detour on my way to and from Japan. How can I leave my mark on the world, I thought, unless I get out there first and see it? Before running a big race, you always want to walk the track. A backpacking trip around the globe might be just the thing. I wanted to visit the planet’s most beautiful and wondrous places.
And its most sacred. Of course I wanted to taste other foods, hear other languages, dive into other cultures, but what I really craved was “connection” with a capital “C.” I wanted to experience what the Chinese call Tao, the Greeks call Logos, the Hindus call Jñāna, the Buddhists call Dharma. What the Christians call Spirit. Before setting out on my own personal life voyage, I thought, let me first understand the greater voyage of humankind. Let me explore the grandest temples and churches and shrines, the holiest rivers and mountaintops. Let me feel the presence of . . . God?
Yes, I told myself, yes. For want of a better word, God.
But first, I’d need my father’s approval. More, I’d need his cash.
I’d already mentioned making a big trip, the previous year, and my father seemed open to it. But surely he’d forgotten. And surely I was pushing it, adding to the original proposal this Crazy Idea, this outrageous side trip—to Japan? To launch a company? Talk about boondoggles.
Surely he’d see this as a bridge too far.
And a bridge too darned expensive. I had some savings from the Army and from various part-time jobs over the last several summers. On top of which, I planned to sell my car, a cherry-black 1960 MG with racing tires and a twin cam. All of which amounted to fifteen hundred dollars, leaving me a grand short, I now told my father. He nodded, uh-huh, mmhmm, and flicked his eyes from the TV to me and back again, while I laid it all out.
Remember how we talked, Dad? How I said I want to see the world?
The Himalayas? The Pyramids?
The Dead Sea, Dad? The Dead Sea?
Well, ha-ha, I’m also thinking of stopping off in Japan, Dad. Remember my Crazy Idea? Japanese running shoes? Right? It could be huge, Dad. Huge.
I was laying it on thick, putting on the hard sell, extra hard, because I always hated selling and because this particular sell had zero chance. My father had just forked out hundreds of dollars to the University of Oregon, thousands more to Stanford. He was the publisher of the Oregon Journal, a solid job that paid for all the basic comforts, including our spacious white house on Claybourne Street, in Portland’s quietest suburb, Eastmoreland. But the man wasn’t made of money.
Also, this was 1962. The earth was bigger then. Though humans were beginning to orbit the planet in capsules, 90 percent of Americans still had never been on an airplane. The average man or woman had never ventured farther than one hundred miles from his or her own front door, so the mere mention of global travel by airplane would unnerve any father, and especially mine, whose predecessor at the paper had died in an air crash.
Setting aside money, setting aside safety concerns, the whole thing was just so impractical. I was aware that twenty-six of twenty-seven new companies failed, and my father was aware, too, and the idea of taking on such a colossal risk went against everything he stood for. In many ways my father was a conventional Episcopalian, a believer in Jesus Christ. But he also worshipped another secret deity—respectability. He liked being admired. He liked doing a vigorous backstroke each day in the mainstream. Going around the world on a lark, therefore, would simply make no sense to him. It wasn’t done. Certainly not by the respectable sons of respectable men. It was something other people’s kids did.
For these and a dozen other reasons I expected my father to greet my pitch in the TV nook with a furrowed brow and a quick put-down. Ha-ha, Crazy Idea. Fat chance, Buck. (My given name was Philip, but my father always called me Buck. In fact, he’d been calling me Buck since before I was born. My mother told me he’d been in the habit of patting her stomach and asking, “How’s little Buck today?”) As I stopped talking, however, as I stopped pitching, my father rocked forward in his vinyl recliner and shot me a funny look. He said that he always regretted not traveling more when he was young. He said a trip might be just the finishing touch to my education. He said a lot of things, all of them focused more on the trip than the Crazy Idea, but I wasn’t about to correct him. I wasn’t about to complain, because in sum he was giving his blessing. And his cash.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, Buck. Okay.”
I thanked my father and fled the nook before he had a chance to change his mind. Only later did I realize with a spasm of guilt that my father’s lack of travel was an ulterior reason, perhaps the main reason, that I wanted to go. This trip, this Crazy Idea, would be one sure way of becoming someone other than him. Someone less respectable.
Or maybe not less respectable. Maybe just less obsessed with respectability.
The rest of the family wasn’t quite so supportive. When my grandmother got wind of my itinerary, one item in particular appalled her. “Japan!” she cried. “Why, Buck, what about Pearl Harbor!”
I loved my mother’s mother, whom we all called Mom Hatfield. And I understood her fear. Japan was about as far as you could get from Roseburg, Oregon, the farm town where she was born and where she’d lived all her life. I’d spent many summers down there with her and Pop Hatfield. Almost every night we’d sit out on the porch, listening to the croaking bullfrogs compete with the console radio.
My twin sisters, Jeanne and Joanne, four years younger than me, didn’t seem to care one way or another where I went or what I did.
And my mother, as I recall, said nothing. She rarely did. But there was something different about her silence this time. It equaled consent. Even pride.
I spent weeks reading, planning, preparing for my trip. I went for long runs, musing on every detail while racing the wild geese as they flew overhead. Their tight V formations—I’d read somewhere that the geese in the rear of the formation, cruising in the backdraft, only have to work 80 percent as hard as the leaders. Every runner understands this. Front-runners always work the hardest, and risk the most.
Long before approaching my father, I’d decided it would be good to have a companion on my trip, and that companion should be my Stanford classmate Carter. Though he’d been a hoops star at William Jewell College, Carter wasn’t your typical jock. He wore thick glasses and read books. Good books. He was easy to talk to, and easy not to talk to—equally important qualities in a friend. Essential in a travel companion.
But Carter laughed in my face. When I laid out the list of places I wanted to see—Hawaii, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rangoon, Calcutta, Bombay, Saigon, Kathmandu, Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jordan, Jerusalem, Nairobi, Rome, Paris, Vienna, West Berlin, East Berlin, Munich, London—he rocked back on his heels and guffawed. Mortified, I looked down and began to make apologies. Then Carter, still laughing, said: “What a swell idea, Buck!”
I looked up. He wasn’t laughing at me. He was laughing with joy, with glee. He was impressed. It took nerve to put together an itinerary like that, he said. Courage. He wanted in.
Days later he got the okay from his parents, plus a loan from his father. Carter never did mess around. See an open shot, take it—that was Carter. I told myself there was much I could learn from a guy like that as we circled the earth.
We each packed one suitcase and one backpack. Only the bare necessities, we promised each other. A few pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts. Running shoes, desert boots, sunglasses, plus one pair of “suntans”—the 1960s word for khakis.
I also packed one good suit. A green Brooks Brothers two-button.
Just in case my Crazy Idea came to fruition.
September 7, 1962. Carter and I piled into his battered old Chevy and drove at warp speed down I-5, through the Willamette Valley, out the wooded bottom of Oregon, which felt like plunging through the roots of a tree. We sped into the piney tip of California, up and over tall green mountain passes, then down, down, until long after midnight we swept into fog-cloaked San Francisco. For several days we stayed with some friends, sleeping on their floor, and then we swung by Stanford and fetched a few of Carter’s things out of storage. Finally we bought two discounted tickets on Standard Airlines to Honolulu. One-way, eighty bucks.
It felt like only minutes later that Carter and I were stepping onto the sandy tarmac of Oahu’s airport. We wheeled and looked at the sky and thought: That is not the sky back home.
We took a cab to Waikiki Beach and checked into a motel directly across the street from the sea. In one motion we dropped our bags and pulled on our swim trunks. Race you to the water!
As my feet hit the sand I whooped and laughed and kicked off my sneakers, then sprinted directly into the waves. I didn’t stop until I was up to my neck in the foam. I dove to the bottom, all the way to the bottom, and then came up gasping, laughing, and rolled onto my back. At last I stumbled onto the shore and plopped onto the sand, smiling at the birds and the clouds. I must have looked like an escaped mental patient. Carter, sitting beside me now, wore the same daffy expression.
“We should stay here,” I said. “Why be in a hurry to leave?”
“What about The Plan?” Carter said. “Going around the world?”
Carter grinned. “Swell idea, Buck.”
So we got jobs. Selling encyclopedias door-to-door. Not glamorous, to be sure, but heck. We didn’t start work until 7:00 p.m., which gave us plenty of time for surfing. Suddenly nothing was more important than learning to surf. After only a few tries I was able to stay upright on a board, and after a few weeks I was good. Really good.
Gainfully employed, we ditched our motel room and signed a lease on an apartment, a furnished studio with two beds, one real, one fake—a sort of ironing board that folded out from the wall. Carter, being longer and heavier, got the real bed, and I got the ironing board. I didn’t care. After a day of surfing and selling encyclopedias, I could have slept in a luau fire pit. The rent was one hundred bucks a month, which we split down the middle.
Life was sweet. Life was heaven. Except for one small thing. I couldn’t sell encyclopedias.
I couldn’t sell encyclopedias to save my life. The older I got, it seemed, the shier I got, and the sight of my extreme discomfort often made strangers uncomfortable. Thus, selling anything would have been challenging, but selling encyclopedias, which were about as popular in Hawaii as mosquitoes and mainlanders, was an ordeal. No matter how deftly or forcefully I managed to deliver the key phrases drilled into us during our brief training session (“Boys, tell the folks you ain’t selling encyclopedias—you’re selling a Vast Compendium of Human Knowledge . . . the Answers to Life’s Questions!”), I always got the same response.
Beat it, kid.
If my shyness made me bad at selling encyclopedias, my nature made me despise it. I wasn’t built for heavy doses of rejection. I’d known this about myself since high school, freshman year, when I got cut from the baseball team. A small setback, in the grand scheme, but it knocked me sideways. It was my first real awareness that not everyone in this world will like us, or accept us, that we’re often cast aside at the very moment we most need to be included.
I will never forget that day. Dragging my bat along the sidewalk, I staggered home and holed up in my room, where I grieved, and moped, for about two weeks, until my mother appeared on the edge of my bed and said, “Enough.” She urged me to try something else.
“Like what?” I groaned into my pillow.
“How about track?” she said.
“Track?” I said.
“You can run fast, Buck.”
“I can?” I said, sitting up.
So I went out for track. And I found that I could run. And no one could take that away.
Now I gave up selling encyclopedias, and all the old familiar rejection that went with it, and I turned to the want ads. In no time I spotted a small ad inside a thick black border in the newspaper. WANTED: SECURITIES SALESMEN. I certainly figured to have better luck selling securities. After all, I had an MBA. And before leaving home I’d had a pretty successful interview with Dean Witter.
I did some research and found that this job had two things going for it. First, it was with Investors Overseas Services, which was headed by Bernard Cornfeld, one of the most famous businessmen of the 1960s. Second, it was located on the top floor of a beautiful beachside tower. Twenty-foot windows overlooking that turquoise sea. Both of these things appealed to me and made me press hard in the interview. Somehow, after weeks of being unable to talk anyone into buying an encyclopedia, I talked Team Cornfeld into taking a flier on me.
Cornfeld’s extraordinary success, plus that breathtaking view, made it possible most days to forget that the firm was nothing more than a boiler room. Cornfeld was notorious for asking his employees if they sincerely wanted to be rich, and every day a dozen wolfish young men demonstrated that they did, they sincerely did. With ferocity, with abandon, they crashed the phones, cold-calling prospects, scrambling desperately to arrange face-to-face meetings. I wasn’t a smooth talker. I wasn’t any kind of talker. Still, I knew numbers, and I knew the product: Dreyfus Funds. More, I knew how to speak the truth. People seemed to like that. I was quickly able to schedule a few meetings and to close a few sales. Inside a week I’d earned enough in commissions to pay my half of the rent for the next six months, with plenty left over for surfboard wax.
My sense of carpe diem was heightened by the fact that the world was coming to an end. A nuclear standoff with the Soviets had been building for weeks. The Soviets had three dozen missiles in Cuba, the United States wanted them out, and both sides had made their final offer. Negotiations were over and World War III was set to begin any minute. According to the newspapers, missiles would fall from the sky later today. Tomorrow at the latest. The world was Pompeii, and the volcano was already spitting ash. Ah well, everyone agreed, when humanity ends, this will be as good a place as any to watch the rising mushroom clouds. Aloha, civilization.
And then, surprise, the world was spared. The crisis passed. The sky seemed to sigh with relief as the air turned suddenly crisper, calmer. A perfect Hawaiian autumn followed. Days of contentment and something close to bliss.
Followed by a sharp restlessness. One night I turned to Carter. “I think maybe the time has come to leave Shangri-La,” I said.
I didn’t make a hard pitch. I didn’t think I had to. It was clearly time to get back to The Plan. But Carter frowned and stroked his chin. “Gee, Buck, I don’t know.”
He’d met a girl. He wanted to stick around, and how could I argue?
I told him I understood. But I was cast low. I went for a long walk on the beach. Game over, I told myself.
The last thing I wanted was to pack up and return to Oregon. But I couldn’t see traveling around the world alone, either. Go home, a faint inner voice told me. Get a normal job. Be a normal person.
Then I heard another faint voice, equally emphatic. No, don’t go home. Keep going. Don’t stop.
The next day I gave my two weeks’ notice at the boiler room. “Too bad, Buck,” one of the bosses said, “you had a real future as a salesman.”
“God forbid,” I muttered.
That afternoon, at a travel agency down the block, I purchased an open plane ticket, good for one year on any airline going anywhere. A sort of Eurail Pass in the sky. On Thanksgiving Day, 1962, I hoisted my backpack and shook Carter’s hand.
The captain addressed the passengers in rapid-fire Japanese, and I started to sweat. I looked out the window at the blazing red circle on the wing.
Was my idea crazy? Maybe I was, in fact, crazy.
If so, it was too late to seek professional help. The plane was screeching down the runway, roaring above Hawaii’s cornstarch beaches. I looked down at the massive volcanoes growing smaller and smaller. No turning back.
Since it was Thanksgiving, the in-flight meal was turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Since we were bound for Japan, there was also raw tuna and miso soup. I ate it all while reading the paperbacks I’d stuffed into my backpack. The Catcher in the Rye and Naked Lunch. I identified with Holden Caulfield, the teenage introvert seeking his place in the world, but Burroughs went right over my head. The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.
Too rich for my blood. I fell asleep. When I woke we were in a steep, rapid descent. Below us lay a startlingly bright Tokyo. The Ginza in particular was like a Christmas tree.
Driving to my hotel, however, I saw only darkness. Vast sections of the city were total liquid black. “War,” the cabdriver said. “Many building still bomb.” For long, solemn stretches the cabdriver and I said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Finally the driver stopped at the address written in my notebook. A dingy hostel. Beyond dingy. I’d made the reservation through American Express, sight unseen, a mistake, I now realized. I crossed the pitted sidewalk and entered a building that seemed about to implode.
An old Japanese woman behind the front desk bowed to me. I realized she wasn’t bowing, she was bent by age, like a tree that’s weathered many storms. Slowly she led me to my room, which was more a box. Tatami mat, lopsided table, nothing else. I didn’t care. I barely noticed that the tatami mat was wafer thin. I bowed to the bent old woman, bidding her good night. Oyasumi nasai. I curled up on the mat and passed out.
Hours later I woke in a room flooded with light. I crawled to the window. Apparently I was in some kind of industrial district on the city’s fringe, filled with docks and factories. Everywhere I looked was desolation. Buildings cracked and broken. Block after block simply leveled. Gone.
Luckily my father knew people in Tokyo, including a group of American guys working at United Press International. I took a cab there and the guys greeted me like family. They gave me coffee and a breakfast ring and when I told them where I’d spent the night they laughed. They booked me into a clean, decent hotel. Then they wrote down the names of several good places to eat.
What in God’s name are you doing in Tokyo? I explained that I was going around the world. Then I mentioned my Crazy Idea. “Huh,” they said, giving a little eye roll. They mentioned two ex-servicemen who ran a monthly magazine called Importer. “Talk to the fellas at Importer,” they said, “before you do anything rash.”
I promised I would. But first, I wanted to see the city.
Guidebook and Minolta box camera in hand, I sought out the few landmarks that had survived the war, the oldest temples and shrines. I spent hours sitting on benches in walled gardens, reading about Japan’s dominant religions, Buddhism and Shinto. I marveled at the concept of kensho, or satori—enlightenment that comes in a flash, a blinding pop. Sort of like the bulb on my Minolta. I liked that. I wanted that.
But first, I’d need to change my whole approach. I was a linear thinker, and according to Zen, linear thinking is nothing but a delusion, one of the many that keep us unhappy. Reality is nonlinear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.
In every religion, it seemed, self is the obstacle, the enemy. And yet Zen declares plainly that the self doesn’t exist. Self is a mirage, a fever dream, and our stubborn belief in its reality not only wastes life, but shortens it. Self is the bald-faced lie we tell ourselves daily, and happiness requires seeing through the lie, debunking it. To study the self, said the thirteenth-century Zen master Dōgen, is to forget the self. Inner voice, outer voices, it’s all the same. No dividing lines.
Especially in competition. Victory, Zen says, comes when we forget the self and the opponent, who are but two halves of one whole. In Zen and the Art of Archery, it’s all laid out with crystal clarity. Perfection in the art of swordsmanship is reached . . . when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one’s own sword and how to wield it. . . . All is emptiness: your own self, the flashing sword, and the arms that wield it. Even the thought of emptiness is no longer there.
My head swimming, I decided to take a break, to visit a very unZen landmark, in fact the most anti-Zen place in Japan, an enclave where men focused on self and nothing but self—the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Housed in a marble Romanesque building with great big Greek columns, the Tosho looked from across the street like a stodgy bank in a quiet town in Kansas. Inside, however, all was bedlam. Hundreds of men waving their arms, pulling their hair, screaming. A more depraved version of Cornfeld’s boiler room.
I couldn’t look away. I watched and watched, asking myself, Is this what it’s all about? Really? I appreciated money as much as the next guy. But I wanted my life to be about so much more.
After the Tosho I needed peace. I went deep into the silent heart of the city, to the garden of the nineteenth-century emperor Meiji and his empress, a space thought to possess immense spiritual power. I sat, contemplative, reverent, beneath swaying ginkgo trees, beside a beautiful torii gate. I read in my guidebook that a torii gate is usually a portal to sacred places, and so I basked in the serenity, trying to soak it all in.
The next morning I laced up my running shoes and jogged to Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market. It was the Tosho all over again, with shrimp instead of stocks. I watched ancient fishermen spread their catches onto wooden carts and haggle with leather-faced merchants. That night I took a bus up to the lakes region, in the northern Hakone Mountains, an area that inspired many of the great Zen poets. You cannot travel the path until you have become the path yourself, said the Buddha, and I stood in awe before a path that twisted from the glassy lakes to cloud-ringed Mount Fuji, a perfect snow-clad triangle that looked to me exactly like Mount Hood back home. The Japanese believe climbing Fuji is a mystical experience, a ritual act of celebration, and I was overcome with a desire to climb it, right then. I wanted to ascend into the clouds. I decided to wait, however. I would return when I had something to celebrate.
I went back to Tokyo and presented myself at the Importer magazine. The two ex-servicemen in charge, thick-necked, brawny, very busy, looked as if they might chew me out for intruding and wasting their time. But within minutes their gruff exterior dissolved and they were warm, friendly, pleased to meet someone from back home. We talked mostly about sports. Can you believe the Yankees won it all again? How about that Willie Mays? None better. Yessir, none better.
Then they told me their story.
They were the first Americans I ever met who loved Japan. Stationed there during the Occupation, they fell under the spell of the culture, and when their hitch was up they simply couldn’t bring themselves to leave. So they’d launched an import magazine, when no one anywhere was interested in importing anything Japanese, and somehow they’d managed to keep it afloat for seventeen years.
I told them my Crazy Idea and they listened with some interest. They made a pot of coffee and invited me to sit down. Was there a particular line of Japanese shoes I’d considered importing? they asked. I told them I liked Tiger, a nifty brand manufactured by Onitsuka Co., down in Kobe, the largest city in southern Japan. “Yes, yes, we’ve seen it,” they said.
I told them I was thinking of heading down there, meeting the Onitsuka people face-to-face.
In that case, the men said, you’d better learn a few things about doing business with the Japanese.
“The key,” they said, “is don’t be pushy. Don’t come on like the typical American, the typical gaijin—rude, loud, aggressive, not taking no for an answer. The Japanese do not react well to the hard sell. Negotiations here tend to be soft. It’s a culture of indirection. No one ever turns you down flat. No one ever says, straight out, no. But they don’t say yes, either. They speak in circles, sentences with no clear subject or object. Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be cocky. You might leave a man’s office thinking you’ve blown it, when in fact he’s ready to do a deal. You might leave thinking you’ve closed a deal, when in fact you’ve just been rejected. You never know.”
I frowned. Under the best of circumstances I was not a great negotiator. Now I was going to have to negotiate in some kind of funhouse with trick mirrors? Where normal rules didn’t apply?
After an hour of this baffling tutorial, I shook hands and said my good-byes. Feeling suddenly that I couldn’t wait, while their words were fresh in my mind, I raced back to my hotel, threw everything into my little suitcase and backpack, and phoned Onitsuka to make an appointment.
Later that afternoon I boarded a train south.
Japan was renowned for its impeccable order and extreme cleanliness. Japanese literature, philosophy, clothing, domestic life, all were marvelously pure and spare. Minimalist. Expect nothing, seek nothing, grasp nothing—the immortal Japanese poets wrote lines that seemed polished and polished until they gleamed like the blade of a samurai’s sword, or the stones of a mountain brook.
So why, I wondered, is this train to Kobe so filthy?
The floors were strewn with newspapers and cigarette butts. The seats were covered with orange rinds and discarded newspapers. Worse, every car was packed. There was barely room to stand.
I found a strap by a window and hung there for seven hours as the train rocked and inched past remote villages, past farms no bigger than the average Portland backyard. The trip was long, but neither my legs nor my patience gave out. I was too busy going over and over my tutorial.
When I arrived I took a small room in a cheap ryokan. My appointment at Onitsuka was early the next morning, so I lay down immediately on the tatami mat. But I was too excited to sleep. I rolled around on the mat most of the night, and at dawn I rose wearily and stared at my gaunt, bleary reflection in the mirror. After shaving, I put on my green Brooks Brothers suit and gave myself a pep talk.
You are capable. You are confident. You can do this.
You can DO this.
Then I went to the wrong place.
I presented myself at the Onitsuka showroom, when in fact I was expected at the Onitsuka factory—across town. I hailed a taxi and raced there, frantic, arriving half an hour late. Unfazed, a group of four executives met me in the lobby. They bowed. I bowed. One stepped forward. He said his name was Ken Miyazaki, and he wished to give me a tour.
The first shoe factory I’d ever seen. I found everything about it interesting. Even musical. Each time a shoe was molded, the metal last would fall to the floor with a silvery tinkle, a melodic CLING-clong. Every few seconds, CLING-clong, CLING-clong, a cobbler’s concerto. The executives seemed to enjoy it, too. They smiled at me and each other.
We passed through the accounting department. Everyone in the room, men and women, leaped from their chairs, and in unison bowed, a gesture of kei, respect for the American tycoon. I’d read that “tycoon” came from taikun, Japanese for “warlord.” I didn’t know how to acknowledge their kei. To bow or not bow, that is always the question in Japan. I gave a weak smile and a half bow, and kept moving.
The executives told me that they churned out fifteen thousand pairs of shoes each month. “Impressive,” I said, not knowing if that was a lot or a little.
They led me into a conference room and pointed me to the chair at the head of a long round table. “Mr. Knight,” someone said, “here.”
Seat of honor. More kei. They arranged themselves around the table and straightened their ties and gazed at me. The moment of truth had arrived.
I’d rehearsed this scene in my head so many times, as I’d rehearsed every race I’d ever run, long before the starting pistol. But now I realized this was no race. There is a primal urge to compare everything—life, business, adventures of all sorts—to a race. But the metaphor is often inadequate. It can take you only so far.
Unable to remember what I’d wanted to say, or even why I was here, I took several quick breaths. Everything depended on my rising to this occasion. Everything. If I didn’t, if I muffed this, I’d be doomed to spend the rest of my days selling encyclopedias, or mutual funds, or some other junk I didn’t really care about. I’d be a disappointment to my parents, my school, my hometown. Myself.
I looked at the faces around the table. Whenever I’d imagined this scene, I’d omitted one crucial element. I’d failed to foresee how present World War II would be in that room. The war was right there, beside us, between us, attaching a subtext to every word we spoke.
And yet it also wasn’t there. The Japanese had put the war cleanly behind them. Also, these executives in the conference room were young, like me, and you could see that they felt the war had nothing to do with them.
On the other hand, the past was past.
On the other hand, that whole question of Winning and Losing, which clouds and complicates so many deals, gets even more complicated when the potential winners and losers have recently been involved, albeit via proxies and ancestors, in a global conflagration.
All of this interior static, this seesawing confusion about war and peace, created a low-volume hum in my head, an awkwardness for which I was unprepared. The realist in me wanted to acknowledge it, the idealist in me pushed it aside. I coughed into my fist. “Gentlemen,” I began.
Mr. Miyazaki interrupted. “Mr. Knight, what company are you with?” he asked.
“Ah, yes, good question.”
Adrenaline surging through my blood, I felt the flight response, the longing to run and hide, which made me think of the safest place in the world. My parents’ house. The house had been built decades before, by people with much more money than my parents, and thus the architect had included servants’ quarters at the back of the house, and these quarters were my bedroom, which I’d filled with baseball cards, record albums, posters, books. I’d also covered one wall with my blue ribbons from track, the one thing in my life of which I was unabashedly proud. And so? “Blue Ribbon,” I blurted. “Gentlemen, I represent Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon.”
Mr. Miyazaki smiled. The other executives smiled. A murmur went around the table. Blueribbon, blueribbon, blueribbon. The executives folded their hands and fell silent again and resumed staring at me. “Well,” I began again, “gentlemen, the American shoe market is enormous. And largely untapped. If Onitsuka can penetrate that market, if Onitsuka can get its Tigers into American stores, and price them to undercut Adidas, which most American athletes now wear, it could be a hugely profitable venture.”
I was simply quoting my presentation at Stanford, verbatim, speaking lines and numbers I’d spent weeks and weeks researching and memorizing, and this helped to create an illusion of eloquence. I could see that the executives were impressed. But when I reached the end of my pitch there was a prickling silence. Then one man broke the silence, and then another, and now they were all speaking over one another in loud, excited voices. Not to me, but to each other.
Then, abruptly, they all stood and left.
Was this the customary Japanese way of rejecting a Crazy Idea? To stand in unison and leave? Had I squandered my kei—just like that? Was I dismissed? What should I do? Should I just . . . leave?
After a few minutes they returned. They were carrying sketches, samples, which Mr. Miyazaki helped to spread before me. “Mr. Knight,” he said, “we’ve been thinking long time about American market.”
“We already sell wrestling shoe in United States. In, eh, Northeast? But we discuss many time bringing other lines to other places in America.”
They showed me three different models of Tigers. A training shoe, which they called a Limber Up. “Nice,” I said. A high-jump shoe, which they called a Spring Up. “Lovely,” I said. And a discus shoe, which they called a Throw Up.
Do not laugh, I told myself. Do not . . . laugh.
They barraged me with questions about the United States, about American culture and consumer trends, about different kinds of athletic shoes available in American sporting goods stores. They asked me how big I thought the American shoe market was, how big it could be, and I told them that ultimately it could be $1 billion. To this day I’m not sure where that number came from. They leaned back, gazed at each other, astonished. Now, to my astonishment, they began pitching me. “Would Blue Ribbon . . . be interested . . . in representing Tiger shoes? In the United States?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it would.”
I held forth the Limber Up. “This is a good shoe,” I said. “This shoe—I can sell this shoe.” I asked them to ship me samples right away. I gave them my address and promised to send them a money order for fifty dollars.
They stood. They bowed deeply. I bowed deeply. We shook hands. I bowed again. They bowed again. We all smiled. We were partners. We were brothers. The meeting, which I’d expected to last fifteen minutes, had gone two hours.
From Onitsuka I went straight to the nearest American Express office and sent a letter to my father. Dear Dad: Urgent. Please wire fifty dollars right away to Onitsuka Co. of Kobe.
Ho ho, hee hee . . . strange things are happening.
Back in my hotel I walked in circles around my tatami mat, trying to decide. Part of me wanted to race back to Oregon, wait for those samples, get a jump on my new business venture.
Also, I was crazed with loneliness, cut off from everything and everyone I knew. The occasional sight of a New York Times or a Time magazine gave me a lump in my throat. I was a castaway, a kind of modern Crusoe. I wanted to be home again. Now.
And yet. I was still aflame with curiosity about the world. I still wanted to see, to explore.
I went to Hong Kong and walked the mad, chaotic streets, horrified by the sight of legless, armless beggars, old men kneeling in filth, alongside pleading orphans. The old men were mute, but the children had a cry they repeated: Hey, rich man, hey, rich man, hey, rich man. Then they’d weep or slap the ground. Even after I gave them all the money in my pockets, the cry never stopped.
I went to the edge of the city, climbed to the top of Victoria Peak, gazed off into the distance at China. In college I’d read the analects of Confucius—The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones—and now I felt strongly that I’d never have a chance to move this particular mountain. I’d never get any closer to that walled-off mystical land, and it made me feel unaccountably sad. Incomplete.
I went to the Philippines, which had all the madness and chaos of Hong Kong, and twice the poverty. I moved slowly, as if in a nightmare, through Manila, through endless crowds and fathomless gridlock.
I went to Bangkok, where I rode a long pole boat through murky swamps to an open-air market that seemed a Thai version of a Hieronymous Bosch painting. I ate birds, and fruits, and vegetables I’d never seen before, and never would again. I dodged rickshaws, scooters, tuk-tuks, and elephants to reach Wat Phra Kaew, and one of the most sacred statues in Asia, an enormous six-hundred-year-old Buddha carved from a single hunk of jade. Standing before its placid face, I asked, Why am I here? What is my purpose?
Or else the silence was my answer.
I went to Vietnam, where streets were bristling with American soldiers, and thrumming with fear. Everyone knew that war was coming. Days before Christmas, 1962, I went on to Calcutta, and rented a room the size of a coffin. No bed, no chair; there wasn’t enough space. Just a hammock suspended above a fizzing hole—the toilet. Within hours I fell ill. An airborne virus, probably, or food poisoning. For one whole day I believed that I wouldn’t make it. I knew that I was going to die.
But I rallied, somehow, forced myself out of that hammock, and the next day I was walking unsteadily with thousands of pilgrims and dozens of sacred monkeys down the steep staircase of Varanasi temple. The steps led directly into the hot seething Ganges. When the water was at my waist I looked up—a mirage? No, a funeral, taking place in the middle of the river. In fact, several funerals. I watched mourners wade out into the current and place their loved ones atop tall wooden biers, then set them afire. Not twenty yards away, others were calmly bathing. Still others were slaking their thirst with the same water.
The Upanishads say, Lead me from the unreal to the real. So I fled the unreal. I flew to Kathmandu and hiked straight up the clean white wall of the Himalayas. On the descent I stopped at a crowded chowk and devoured a bowl of buffalo meat, blood rare. The Tibetans in the chowk, I noted, wore boots of red wool and green flannel, with upturned wooden toes, not unlike the runners on sleds. Suddenly I was noticing everyone’s shoes.
I went back to India, spent New Year’s Eve wandering the streets of Bombay, weaving in and out among oxen and long-horned cows, feeling the start of an epic migraine—the noise and the smells, the colors and the glare. I went on to Kenya, and took a long bus ride deep into the bush. Giant ostriches tried to outrun the bus, and storks the size of pit bulls floated just outside the windows. Every time the driver stopped, in the middle of nowhere, to pick up a few Maasai warriors, a baboon or two would try to board. The driver and warriors would then chase the baboons off with machetes. Before stepping off the bus, the baboons would always glance over their shoulders and give me a look of wounded pride. Sorry, old man, I thought. If it were up to me.
I went to Cairo, to the Giza plateau, and stood beside desert nomads and their silk-draped camels at the foot of the Great Sphinx, all of us squinting up into its eternally open eyes. The sun hammered down on my head, the same sun that hammered down on the thousands of men who built these pyramids, and the millions of visitors who came after. Not one of them was remembered, I thought. All is vanity, says the Bible. All is now, says Zen. All is dust, says the desert.
I went to Jerusalem, to the rock where Abraham prepared to kill his son, where Muhammad began his heavenward ascent. The Koran says the rock wanted to join Muhammad, and tried to follow, but Muhammad pressed his foot to the rock and stopped it. His footprint is said to be still visible. Was he barefoot or wearing a shoe? I ate a terrible midday meal in a dark tavern, surrounded by soot-faced laborers. Each looked bone-tired. They chewed slowly, absently, like zombies. Why must we work so hard? I thought. Consider the lilies of the field . . . they neither toil nor spin. And yet the first-century rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said our work is the holiest part of us. All are proud of their craft. God speaks of his work; how much more should man.
I went on to Istanbul, got wired on Turkish coffee, got lost on the twisty streets beside the Bosphorus. I stopped to sketch the glowing minarets, and toured the golden labyrinths of Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultans, where Muhammad’s sword is now kept. Don’t go to sleep one night, wrote Rūmī, the thirteenth-century Persian poet. What you most want will come to you then.
Warmed by a sun inside you’ll see wonders.
I went to Rome, spent days hiding in small trattorias, scarfing mountains of pasta, gazing upon the most beautiful women, and shoes, I’d ever seen. (Romans in the age of the Caesars believed that putting on the right shoe before the left brought prosperity and good luck.) I explored the grassy ruins of Nero’s bedroom, the gorgeous rubble of the Coliseum, the vast halls and rooms of the Vatican. Expecting crowds, I was always out the door at dawn, determined to be first in line. But there was never a line. The city was mired in a historic cold snap. I had it all to myself.
Even the Sistine Chapel. Alone under Michelangelo’s ceiling, I was able to wallow in my disbelief. I read in my guidebook that Michelangelo was miserable while painting his masterpiece. His back and neck ached. Paint fell constantly into his hair and eyes.
He couldn’t wait to be finished, he told friends. If even Michelangelo didn’t like his work, I thought, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I went to Florence, spent days seeking Dante, reading Dante, the angry, exiled misanthrope. Did the misanthropy come first—or after? Was it the cause or the effect of his anger and exile?
I stood before Michelangelo’s David, shocked at the anger in his eyes. Goliath never had a chance.
I went by train up to Milan, communed with Da Vinci, considered his beautiful notebooks, and wondered at his peculiar obsessions. Chief among them, the human foot. Masterpiece of engineering, he called it. A work of art.
Who was I to argue?
On my last night in Milan I attended the opera at La Scala. I aired out my Brooks Brothers suit and wore it proudly amid the uomini poured into custom-tailored tuxedoes and the donne molded into bejeweled gowns. We all listened in wonder to Turandot. As Calaf sang “Nessun dorma”—Set, stars! At dawn I will win, I will win, I will win!—my eyes welled, and with the fall of the curtain I leaped to my feet. Bravissimo!
I went to Venice, spent a few languorous days walking in the footsteps of Marco Polo, and stood I don’t know how long before the palazzo of Robert Browning. If you get simple beauty and naught else, you get about the best thing God invents.
My time was running out. Home was calling to me. I hurried to Paris, descended far belowground to the Panthéon, put my hand lightly on the crypts of Rousseau—and Voltaire. Love truth, but pardon error. I took a room in a seedy hotel, watched sheets of winter rain sluice the alley below my window, prayed at Notre Dame, got lost in the Louvre. I bought a few books at Shakespeare and Company, and I stood in the spot where Joyce slept, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I then walked slowly down the Seine, stopping to sip a cappuccino at the café where Hemingway and Dos Passos read the New Testament aloud to each other. On my last day I sauntered up the Champs-Élysées, tracing the liberators’ path, thinking all the while of Patton. Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
Of all the great generals, he was the most shoe-obsessed: A soldier in shoes is only a soldier. But in boots he becomes a warrior.
I flew to Munich, visited Bürgerbräukeller, where Hitler fired a gun into the ceiling and started the beginning of what led to World War II. I tried to visit Dachau, but when I asked for directions people looked away, professing not to know. I went to Berlin and presented myself at Checkpoint Charlie. Russian guards in heavy topcoats examined my passport, patted me down, asked what business I had in communist East Berlin. “None,” I said. I was terrified that they’d somehow find out I’d attended Stanford. Just before I arrived two Stanford students had tried to smuggle a teenager out in a Volkswagen. They were still in prison.
But the guards waved me through. I walked a little ways and stopped at the corner of Marx-Engels-Platz. I looked around, all directions. Nothing. No trees, no stores, no life. I thought of all the poverty I’d seen in every corner of Asia. This was a different kind of poverty, more willful, somehow, more preventable. I saw three children playing in the street. I walked over, took their picture. Two boys and a girl, eight years old. The girl—red wool hat, pink coat—smiled directly at me. Will I ever forget her? Or her shoes? They were made of cardboard. I went to Vienna, that momentous, coffee-scented crossroads, where Stalin and Trotsky and Tito and Hitler and Jung and Freud all lived, at the same historical moment, and all loitered in the same steamy cafés, plotting how to save (or end) the world. I walked the cobblestones Mozart walked, crossed his graceful Danube on the most beautiful stone bridge I ever saw, stopped before the towering spires of St. Stephen’s Church, where Beethoven discovered he was deaf. He looked up, saw birds fluttering from the bell tower, and to his horror . . . he did not hear the bells.
At last I flew to London. I went quickly to Buckingham Palace, Speakers’ Corner, Harrods. I granted myself a bit of extra time at Commons. Eyes closed, I conjured the great Churchill. You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory . . . without victory, there is no survival. I wanted desperately to hop a bus to Stratford, to see Shakespeare’s house. But I was out of time.
I spent my last night thinking back over my trip, making notes in my journal. I asked myself, What was the highlight?
Greece, I thought. No question. Greece.
When I first left Oregon I was most excited about two things on my itinerary.
I wanted to pitch the Japanese my Crazy Idea. And I wanted to stand before the Acropolis.
Hours before boarding my flight at Heathrow, I meditated on that moment, looking up at those astonishing columns, experiencing that bracing shock, the kind you receive from all great beauty, but mixed with a powerful sense of—recognition?
Was it only my imagination? After all, I was standing at the birthplace of Western civilization. Maybe I merely wanted it to be familiar. But I didn’t think so. I had the clearest thought: I’ve been here before.
Then, walking up those bleached steps, another thought: This is where it all begins.
On my left was the Parthenon, which Plato had watched the teams of architects and workmen build. On my right was the Temple of Athena Nike. Twenty-five centuries ago, per my guidebook, it had housed a beautiful frieze of the goddess Athena, thought to be the bringer of “nike,” or victory.
It was one of many blessings Athena bestowed. She also rewarded the dealmakers. In the Oresteia she says: “I admire . . . the eyes of persuasion.” She was, in a sense, the patron saint of negotiators.
I don’t know how long I stood there, absorbing the energy and power of that epochal place. An hour? Three? I don’t know how long after that day I discovered the Aristophanes play, set in the Temple of Nike, in which the warrior gives the king a gift—a pair of new shoes. I don’t know when I figured out that the play was called Knights. I do know that as I turned to leave I noticed the temple’s marble façade. Greek artisans had decorated it with several haunting carvings, including the most famous, in which the goddess inexplicably leans down . . . to adjust the strap of her shoe.
February 24, 1963. My twenty-fifth birthday. I walked through the door on Claybourne Street, hair to my shoulders, beard three inches long. My mother let out a cry. My sisters blinked as if they didn’t recognize me, or else hadn’t realized I’d been gone. Hugs, shouts, bursts of laughter. My mother made me sit, poured me a cup of coffee. She wanted to hear everything. But I was exhausted. I set my suitcase and backpack in the hall and went to my room. I stared blearily at my blue ribbons. Mr. Knight, what is the name of your company?
I curled up on the bed and sleep came on.
An hour later I woke to my mother calling out, “Dinner!”
My father was home from work, and he embraced me as I came into the dining room. He, too, wanted to hear every detail. And I wanted to tell him.
But first, I wanted to know one thing. “Dad,” I said. “Did my shoes come?”